Most global superstars experience a specific moment in their careers when they go from being merely great to legendary. It could be anything – an epic match, a historic achievement, even an explosive press conference – but it’s usually easy to pinpoint that watershed event which forever transforms the public perception about the player.
For Novak Djokovic, it was the marathon 2012 Australian Open final that convinced everyone he was a fighter unlike any seen before on a tennis court. For Roger Federer, it was the annihilation of Lleyton Hewitt in the 2004 US Open final that permanently stamped his effortless dominance on the sport. For Andy Murray, it was the hiring of a female coach – Amelie Mauresmo – that prompted his forthrightness on gender equality and earned him an enviable place in the sport’s list of humanitarian champions.
What was that moment for Li Na, the newest inductee into the International Tennis Hall of Fame? The easy answer is her speech at the trophy presentation ceremony after winning the 2014 Australian Open.
That was her second Major title, but it was the first time the whole world took proper notice of her skills – skills that went beyond the tennis court. She was funny, charming and witty in those three minutes of impromptu zinger-delivering, and her lines like “Max, agent, make me rich; thanks a lot” and “My husband; you are famous in China!” became instant comedy gold.
To this date, if you ask a casual fan about Li Na, they are likely to answer: “Oh, that lady with the brilliant speeches?”
But the woman had given us plenty of reasons to anoint her a legit superstar even before that 2014 speech. In 2004 she had become the first Chinese player to ever win a WTA title. In 2006 she had become the first Chinese to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final, at Wimbledon. In 2010 she had become the first to break into the top-10 of the WTA rankings. In 2011 she had become the first ever Asian Grand Slam champion in singles, by winning the French Open. And all through this journey she had kept enthralling everyone with her tremendous speed around the court, her deceptively powerful forehand, and most of all, her buttery smooth two-handed backhand.
Li has almost all the significant ‘firsts’ among Asian players to her name, and it is no surprise that she is considered a trailblazer for tennis in the continent. The Chinese masses look at her like a rockstar, and she popularised the sport in Asia like no other player before or since; her Slam finals regularly drew viewership upwards of 100 million.
But it was her game that stood out most prominently among all of her incredible and inspiring accomplishments.
Li played lightning-quick first-strike tennis, and she could blow anyone off the court with the pace of her shots, but it never looked like she was bludgeoning the ball. For Li, it was all about the timing. She somehow always seemed to find the sweet spot on the racquet, which helped her outhit players much bigger and stronger than her.
She took the ball early on the forehand wing, hitting it mostly flat in the early part of her career but later adding a bit of topspin to enhance its consistency. It was the backhand, however, that was her signature shot. The crosscourt version was as pleasing to the eye as any two-hander could possibly get, and the down-the-line one a devastating and yet quietly reliable weapon.
At times it almost felt like she had two forehands, and her effortless shot-making reminded us of that other sweet timer of the ball, David Nalbandian.
Just like Nalbandian though, Li suffered her fair share of pressure-induced mental collapses on the court. She famously squandered four match points against Kim Clijsters at the 2012 Australian Open, and frequently failed to serve out sets and matches against Serena Williams – a woman who Li had the misfortune of running into far too often at the Slams.
The serve was Li’s Achilles’ heel, with double faults at crucial moments causing her downfall too many times to count. But she was good enough off the ground to make up for that deficiency, and managed to remain steady long enough to win two Grand Slams.
Her win at the 2014 Australian Open was considered long overdue, since she had come painfully close twice before – losing the 2011 and 2013 finals despite winning the first set each time. It was the victory at the French Open that was the real eye-opener; Li had never won a claycourt title before that (and didn’t win any after it either), but for those two weeks in 2011 she was able to miraculously make her flat groundstrokes work on the slow surface.
It was all about the timing for Li – whether it was while hitting her shots, or charting her breakthrough moment. That sense of timing was also evident in all of her interviews, even those before the iconic 2014 one. She had a disarmingly wide smile, and her one-liners dripping with self-deprecating humor never failed to leave her audience in splits.
And to think that we almost never got to witness the extraordinary journey of such a likeable champion. In 2002, at the age of 20, Li left China’s national tennis program and decided to study journalism instead. For two whole years she didn’t play a single professional match, and it was unclear whether she would ever return. Fortunately for us she did, in the summer of 2004, and a remarkable career was officially kick-started.
Li never revealed the exact reason why she took that break, but she retained her rebellious streak. In 2008 she again severed ties from the national tennis program and decided to ‘fly solo’, as the move was dubbed by the Chinese media. This time, however, she continued playing tennis at the highest level, and her departure was also approved by the government as part of its new system of allowing more freedom to players who desired it.
China’s national tennis framework is widely considered to be ultra-draconian, with several reports suggesting that Li felt too shackled by the restrictions imposed on her and other players. The fact that her career blossomed after she broke away suggests that her growth was indeed being hampered under the weight of all the strict rules. At the same time, however, her superbly-balanced game seemed like a validation of the regimented training she underwent while growing up; her efficient stroke-play was clearly a product of some tireless practice.
Irrespective of how she did it though, the fact remains that Li did conquer all the obstacles, scripting a memorable career for herself and also for her entire continent. Today, Li is the ultimate inspiration for youngsters all across Asia; every upcoming tennis player wants to emulate her achievements, and every new landmark in Asian tennis is compared to what Li did first.
Last week, Li was announced as one of three inductees into the Hall of Fame Class of 2019 (along with Mary Pierce and Yevgeny Kafelnikov), and it is hard to imagine anyone more deserving. She opened the eyes of China and Asia to the limitless possibilities in tennis, paving the way for more recent champions from the region like Kei Nishikori and Naomi Osaka.
Li was on hand as Osaka won her second Grand Slam title on Saturday, and it was fitting that it was she who presented the Daphne Akhurst trophy to the young Japanese. It was a symbolic passing of the baton in more ways than one, and vividly represented the meteoric growth of the sport in Asia – a growth both triggered and accelerated by Li.
Spectators everywhere would have had one regret after that historic moment though: if only Li was asked to give a speech…
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Updated Date: Jan 29, 2019 11:18:48 IST